Greenbuild Expo 2010 Recap
Bigger than ever, too many sessions, and some choice quotes
Another Greenbuild Expo is in the books, and based on the Twitter traffic (hashtag #greenbuild), people can’t stop talking about it, so I suppose it’s my turn to chime in. According to the USGBC, attendance was up slightly from last year. The show floor was huge, as always, although the arrangement did not feel crowded or even that big to traverse. Once again, I was disappointed with the lack of foam giveaways to add to my collection, although for the press corps there was, once again, a nice collection of jump drives given away, including a fine-looking plastic figure by Bluebeam with a removable head.
The exhibit hall
I saw few really extraordinary new products, although I heard about Calstar’s new brick that uses 85% less energy to produce and is made with about 40% recycled content. Looks like an interesting product that appears to be in distribution, unlike some products on display in previous years that have yet to make it to market. One of the most important features on the show floor was not a product—rather it was the announcement of an alliance between Pharos and GreenSpec, bringing two of the most respected groups in the industry together into a single information source on green materials for professionals. And, although I didn’t quite get the point, I did like the wood-frame bicycle on display.
The education sessions
There was so much to see and so much networking to do that I was only able to attend two sessions in addition to one that I moderated. Both sessions were disappointing, although for entirely different reasons. The first one on Life Cycle Analysis featured uninspiring speakers with dense, almost illegible slides, and a hot room. I believe that the information they were presenting was good; however, it was difficult to follow it, let alone stay awake. The other session covered LED lighting, and one of the speakers appeared to have excellent information, but due to time constraints, he was forced to rush through his slides so fast that it was almost impossible to digest the information.
These sessions exhibit what I think is the biggest flaw in the Greenbuild model, as well as many other conferences. First, most speakers are volunteers, so the quality of the presentations varies widely. Not only are they speaking for free, but they must cover their own travel expenses, and they even have to pay to attend the event! Second, too many speakers are put together in sessions—the result being that none of them have enough time to adequately address the subject. Finally, there is little cohesion in the programs. Having served on the residential selection committee for this year, I have firsthand experience trying to create a solid program out of a random collection of submissions, many of which were eliminated before we even got to see them. I lobbied hard to determine curriculum goals first, then seek out the best speakers—rather than the current method—but this suggestion was pretty much dismissed throughout the process.
Interestingly, a USGBC staffer told me that the NAHB did a better job with the education at their green building conference, and I have to agree. Industry professionals deserve to be compensated for their time presenting, and attendees deserve to hear consistently high-quality presenters. It’s time for Greenbuild to raise the bar on presenters and the overall curriculum. One side note: I am considering a new career as the PowerPoint Police. Armed with a paintball gun, I will shoot at either the screen or the presenter if the slides are illegible or otherwise useless.
The tent revival
The closing plenary had the feel of a tent revival, and I may have even heard the occasional “Amen!” shouted in agreement. The music, huge HDTV screens showing us every pore of the speakers, and Oscar-worthy mini-documentaries about the leadership award winners made me wonder how much money was being spent on the event. Mayor Daley gave a good, down-to-earth talk about making Chicago more sustainable. Shawn Donovan, the U.S. housing secretary, gave a predictably political speech, including a shout-out to LEED ND, which will be used as a criterion for future housing grants. I guess a little pandering for a good cause is acceptable once in a while.
The session wrapped up with the Ray Anderson/Paul Hawken mutual admiration society. If they weren’t both such nice, sincere people, it wouldn’t have come off well. Hawken is a quirky, friendly guy who referred to Greenbuild as “lots of great ideas having sex,” only the first of several references he made to the act of reproduction throughout his talk. My favorite line of his was “There are no inconsequential acts, only consequential inaction.”
Probably my favorite quote of the entire conference was from Ron Jones, who recently founded the GreenBuilder Coalition. After many years intimately involved with both USGBC and NAHB, he appears to have settled into the role of annoyer-in-chief of both groups. At a party he hosted, he said, “NAHB will throw you under the bus and let your bones bleach in the sun on the side of the road.” Guess he doesn’t like them as much as he used to.
The overall winning moment for me was attending the Hanley Award dinner and seeing Alex Wilson being honored for his decades of dedication to green building. I can’t think of anyone more deserving. Overall, the conference was a success and, thankfully, it provided me with a few things to complain about. I look forward to next year in Toronto.
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